Why Do Serious Men Misunderstand This Book?

Reading between the lines.
June 29 2012 11:41 PM

Listening to Women

Why smart, serious men have misunderstood Sheila Heti’s new book.

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Heti’s closer analogue might be Fiona Apple, who wrote a beautiful, musically virtuosic album with a long title that she fought for because it was what suited her. And now every piece about Apple must begin with a thicket of speculation, ventured under the cover of artistic respect, that she is crazy. Even Apple’s noticed it. “Because that’s what you do with me, right?” she asked Jon Pareles of the New York Times. Even when someone admits that what Apple has to say is worth hearing, they can’t resist the armchair psychologizing. Push the envelope too far as a female artist, and you may only earn an ocean of ink expressing concern for your delicate constitution, amounting to a caution against playing on traditionally male wavelengths.

Sheila Heti.
Sheila Heti

Photo by Sylvia Plachy Color.

Like Apple, Heti knows what she’s doing—much of the pleasure of How Should a Person Be? comes from watching her control the norms she’s subverting. Take what even Heti’s most fervent acolyte must admit is the loose, sometimes bland quality of the conversations in this book. To simply call them banal and stop there ignores (or misunderstands) the strange way this book works. When you turn those conversations over (and over) in your mind, you’ll find something else going on. Sheila herself tapes her conversations with Margaux, transcribing them into a sort of scripture. This is a novel that wonders if the ugly can be beautiful, if there is clarity to be found in the drifting. The occasional banality of the conversations is a deliberate challenge, not least to the notion of banality itself.

So sure, How Should a Person Be? may not be an ideal beach read, but why does that matter on the level of serious art? In one of the novel’s intermittent moments of sparkling lucidity, Sheila observes that, “Had anyone suggested at the time that it would not be the Egypt of the pharaohs that would survive and change the moral landscape of the world, but instead a group of Hebrew slaves, it would have seemed the ultimate absurdity.” She and her friends, the slaves of the metaphor, must struggle with the fact that, for the moment, their language is that of the underdogs, and is ugly to the common reader. But Heti has reason to hope that some readers will take the seriousness and precision of her book on faith, because it is, frankly, what artists upending orthodoxies have always expected.

Zadie Smith, in an essay about David Foster Wallace—both of them writers whose work has not always met with James Wood’s approval—argued that Wallace, for all of his difficulty, was simply looking for another level of understanding, a higher awareness than the preoccupations of the modern world demand. “Strange to say it,” she wrote, “but Wallace wanted faithful readers.” Perhaps the best thing to say about Heti’s book is that it demands the same. (Certainly the gurulike quality that audiences at readings ascribe to her is reminiscent of Wallace.) In the famous interview off which Smith based her argument, Wallace himself suggested it was all a matter of trust. It “seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose,” he said, “the agenda of the consciousness behind the text.” On every page of How Should A Person Be? that agenda—to make you ask questions, to keep your mind whirring on this whole question of being—is palpable. Whether you find Heti’s particular expression of it powerful or merely tedious cannot be predicted in advance. But simply being open to the possibility that a person like Heti could teach you something about it? That is entirely up to you.

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How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. Henry Holt.

Michelle Dean is a writer and recovering lawyer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.